‘Parklets’ proliferate along the Pacific


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network


In San Francisco, the program is called Pavement to Parks—or “parklet,” for short—and it’s immensely popular in parts of the city.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, there’s a recently installed parklet cleverly named Parallel Park. It consists of a deck-like structure with built-in seats and tables, occupying two parking spots.

Both of these West Coast cities are part of a burgeoning movement toward turning on-street parking spaces into diminutive places where people can comfortably hang out. As explained on the website of Pavement to Parks, the rationale is simple:

San Francisco ’s streets and public rights-of-way make up fully 25% of the city’s land area, more space even than is found in all of the city’s parks. Many of our streets are excessively wide and contain large zones of wasted space, especially at intersections. San Francisco’s new “Pavement to Parks” projects seek to temporarily reclaim these unused swathes and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks. 

The conversions don’t necessarily last long. The San Francisco program—a collaborative effort of the mayor’s office, the Department of Public Works, the Planning Department, and the Municipal Transportation Agency, says:

Each Pavement to Parks project is intended to be a public laboratory where the City can work with the community to test the potential of the selected location to be permanently reclaimed as public open space. Materials and design interventions are meant to be temporary and easily moveable should design changes be desired during the trial-run. 

Nonetheless, the initial response has been enthusiastic. Urban design critic John King wrote in early July in the San Francisco Chronicle that the parklets are becoming neighborhood fixtures—and “the most intriguing urban design innovation in today’s San Francisco.” By that time, 14 parklets had been created on parking spots in the city, and another dozen were expected to be installed by summer’s end. Applications for another 30 were being reviewed by city planners.

The small spaces for lounging and socializing fit right in with today’s low-budget economy, which has stimulated inexpensive interventions sometimes referred to as “tactical urbanism.” The designs can be handsome without being costly.

In Vancouver, Travis Martin, who works with the landscape architecture firm van der Zalm + Associates, designed a pocket public space made of clear cedar that cost only $18,000. As described on The Dirt website, Martin’s parklet, dubbed Parallel Park, has high slatted walls that people sitting on benches can lean back against. Box seats and tables provide seating for individuals, couples, and groups of up to eight.

That city’s program, run under the auspices of Viva Vancouver, “is based on best practices learned from three public space pilot projects that re-imagined public spaces in innovative ways: Summer Spaces 2009, the 2010 Olympic Pedestrian Corridors and Rediscover Granville in 2010,” according to information at the Viva Vancouver website.

Says Viva Vancouver:

The program’s three main goals are to:

  • Create a variety of public spaces for a mix of engaging activities and sojourning
  • Increase neighbourhood liveability benefiting residents, businesses, community groups and visitors
  • Encourage sustainable and active transportation by creating more safe and interesting spaces for walking and cycling.

In San Francisco, King notes, businesses pay permit and constrution costs and agree to maintain the spaces. So far, there have not been so many parklets in a short stretch of street that they seem to make parking too scarce, he says.

One potential difficulty arises when the parklet looks as if it’s a seating area reserved for a particular cafe. To prevent that from happening, applications now stipulate that “chairs and tables on a parklet can’t be the same look as the furniture used by a restaurant inside its space or on the sidewalk,” King points out.